What Is Awareness Through Movement? No Healing but Learning

What Is ATM © Online Feldenkrais
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The first time I heard the word “ATM” was during my early days in the training program. I thought, “Why are talking about an ATM machine here?” But, soon enough, I realized that the word ATM is an abbreviation of the term “Awareness through Movement.”

In the world of Feldenkrais, Awareness through Movement lessons are presented in the form of group learning verbally guided by a teacher. The International Feldenkrais Federation (IFF) officially defines the term Awareness through Movement in the Standard of Practice section on their website.

We are left with a shared question: How do we practice an Awareness through Movement lesson?

The most common advice you would find in the world of Feldenkrais is “do it slowly.” People who have not experienced the method before would probably agree that an Awareness through Movement exercise is slow from their very first class. One of my Awareness through Movement students in the US had never experienced Feldenkrais before coming to my class. After this one-time exploration, they told me, “This is an exercise for 80 year-olds.” A similar story occurred in a totally different geographical zone, East Asia, where a newcomer asked me after a workshop, “Why was there no music during the lesson?” So, the general impression of doing an Awareness through Movement lesson is a slow and quiet exercise.

But, what are Dr. Moshé Feldenkrais’ thoughts? How did he himself explain the concept of an Awareness through Movement lesson? I have found that audio recordings of his Esalen workshop in 1972 can help our understanding of Awareness through Movement. Here are my summaries and reflections.

Who? An Exercise for Everybody

In his introduction, Dr. Feldenkrais states clearly that everyone from different mental and physical conditions can do Awareness through Movement exercises: young and old, healthy and ill, strong and weak alike. He says, “…the exercise will be such that everyone would be able to benefit through the exercise in his own way.”

What? A Learning Process

What is Awareness through Movement all about? We often heard about the method’s healing results. However, Dr. Feldenkrais himself described the method as an organic learning process rather than healing. In his book The Elusive Obvious, Dr. Feldenkrais writes:

For many years I have been involved in working with people who have turned to me for help. Some complain of physical pain, others of mental anguish, and only a few ever speak of emotional troubles. I have some difficulty in explaining to my followers that I am not a therapist and that my touching a person with my hands has no therapeutic or healing value, though people improve through it. I think that what happens to them is learning, but few agree with this. What I am doing does not resemble teaching as understood at present. The accent is on the learning process, rather than on the teaching technique.

– Moshé Feldenkrais, The Elusive Obvious, 1981-2019, p.32

This quote above shows that the method is not one of healing but of learning, a position also found in his Esalen workshop teaching. In this learning process, an individual engages their own sensory feelings through a sequence of movements with their own unique experience of the method. Dr. Feldenkrais further explains how it works in a Awareness through Movement lesson:

Therefore, those young, more or less normal, strong people, will find that they can benefit from that lesson differently, in a different way, than some of you are in pain, or in 60s, or some of you in older ages. The fact that you are going to work in the same group is probably to you at that moment strange and you don’t believe that you could … some will believe that they waste that time and others, other one will be able to do it. So try and see if those lessons in that way that everybody should learn.

– Moshé Feldenkrais, The Esalen 1972 Workshop, 1972

How? Do It in Your Own Way

What does this title mean? Do it in my own way? Isn’t the idea of a learning approach that it provides certain standards to follow?

My student YR once shared her learning experience with me, comparing my online and in-person workshops. YR said that if she was confused about movements, she could take a peek at how other people were doing them in the physical course. However, in our online workshops, YR had to figure it out by herself. YR’s anecdote of not being able to copy other folks’ movements in online courses demonstrates Dr. Feldenkrais’ number-one rule of doing ATM. Here is a quote from Dr. Feldenkrais:

First of all, do not to look at others. Do it in your own way. Do whatever you understand from what I said.

– Moshé Feldenkrais, The Esalen 1972 Workshop, 1972

Why? Do It in Your Own Way

Dr. Feldenkrais further explains the relationship between a learning process of not copying someone and its learning result. Here is what he said in one of his Esalen lessons:

Because to look at others you will find that you will not know at whom to look. Everyone will understand what I say in his own way. I will not be correcting because I am not imposing on you any ideas, of what you should be, or what your posture should be, or what your behavior should be. I will try only to loop you around to finding your body, your own self, what you would feel, what you probably wanted to correct long ago, but could not find a way of doing it. I hope I will give you that, that you will find the way of improving, precisely that what you own secret of wanting and give that only because you could not find any help from yourself or from anybody else.

– Moshé Feldenkrais, The Esalen 1972 Workshop, 1972

Next time, if you are interested in exploring Awareness through Movement excerises, follow the instructions regarding the movements and explore different sensations, at your own pace and comfort. Have some fun in this organic learning process and try to move beyond correct or incorrect ways of doing something.

There is a line from the 1992 Billboard top 10 song, Free Your Mind, that perfectly captures the approach for Feldenkrais exercises:

Free your mind and the rest will follow!

Chris Lee

Chris Lee

Chris Lee is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner and a Professional Member at The Feldenkrais Guild of North America. She practices internationally including North America, East Asia and Europe. Chris Lee received her Doctor of Education in Art and Art Education from Columbia University, New York City.